The Magnificent Seven (1960) *****

For an action-packed western, The Magnificent Seven begins with a piece of such subtlety that you probably won’t notice it. The credits appear over what looks like a tableau – mountains in the background, ricks of corn in the foreground. After a minute-and-a-half, the tableau comes to life, a tiny figure walking out from behind a corn stack and a few seconds later tiny horsemen – the Mexican bandits about to terrorise the village – enter  from the opposite side of the frame. This is a far more subtle picture than generally given credit for. Although the protagonists often verbalize their intentions, it is the visual that gives away hidden emotions. Charles Bronson hands a child a whistle, Steve McQueen looks wistfully at women doing laundry by a stream, Robert Vaughn braces his back against a wall to avoid combat, young villager Rosenda Monteros displays her true feelings for Horst Buchholz by soundlessly dumping food on his plate.

It is a violent film that questions the nature of violence. Whether being a gunman is fulfilling or detrimental. It is a film about standing up or giving in. Those new to bearing arms take the optimistic view, the villagers at first exhilarated by being able to tackle the invaders before falling prey to age-old fears, the young Mexican played by Buchholz idolizing the gunfighters. But the gunfighters themselves are a disillusioned bunch. Their calling has brought them neither wealth, roots nor satisfaction. When we first encounter Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, they are drifters, and impoverished at that. Charles Bronson chops logs to pay for his breakfast, Robert Vaughn is on the run without the wherewithal to pay for his room. Brad Dexter is the stereotypical cowboy, looking for one last big score. Only James Coburn appears self-contained. All are so poor they are willing to take on a job lasting six weeks for a paltry twenty bucks.

They might have a code of honour – but then again they might not. Mexican bandit chief Eli Wallach sees them as no different to himself. The villagers fear them as much as the bandits, to the extent of hiding away their women.  Of the seven, Brynner and Coburn are the only two willing to stick to the letter of their contract. The climax of the film might appear to be the battle royal at the end, but, in fact, the emotional highpoint has taken place some time earlier when the hyped-up Buchholz is brought down to earth by the gunfighters’ tally of their achievements – no wives, no children, no homes. The village, a nothing place in the middle of nowhere, has become more than a job, it has turned into a fantasy, a place where Bronson is adopted by children, where Buchholz is seduced into the life he abhors, and where the gunmen will give up their own food to the starving villagers.

The picture is surprisingly full of twists and turns.  The bandit leader is far more affable – a benevolent dictator – than such a role normally demands. And he is pretty savvy, so that at points the movie becomes a game of cat-and-mouse. The villagers go from despising the gunmen to hailing them as heroes to betraying them. The seven trap the bandits only to be trapped in turn.

And it is all held together with terrific verve. The tracking camera had never before been used with such skill in a western. There are two brilliantly choreographed knock-‘em-dead battles, added to which are several outstanding sequences. The 20-minutes recruitment section contains three such scenes. Confronted by an act of racism, Brynner and McQueen team up to drive a hearse taking a dead Native American to a graveyard, their sole reward a few swigs of whisky. Then there is the initial dismissal of the callow Buchholz who cannot draw his gun before Brynner has clapped his hands. And there is the knife-throwing expertise of  James Coburn.

While the hiring of the others – Harry (Brad Dexter), Bernardo (Charles Bronson) and Lee (Robert Vaughn) – is more prosaic, time is taken to establish their characters. Most movies do not waste time introducing secondary characters, but in taking all the time in the world Sturges gives the audience investment in these men. Courtesy of their actions, Chris, Vin and Britt have nothing to prove to the moviegoer, Harry is set up as the greedy one. Young Chico is most likely to get his head blown off. But that still leaves mystery about the shifty Lee and the inscrutable Bernardo.

Although roughly sticking to the source material, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), The Magnificent Seven lacked its epic running time of three-and-half-hours. Cutting the film back to a trimmer two hours created a western with its own rules.  Yul Brynner dressed all in black, chomping on a cigar, barking orders, strode around as if he owned the place. But at the same time displayed the world weariness of his profession.  McQueen brought a new kind of persona to the screen. Coburn’s screen charisma was in its early stages but his easy lope and self-assurance stood out. Bronson demonstrated a taciturnity that could have spelled the end of a career never mind the start of one. Buchholz and Robert Vaughn had the hardest parts. The former had to bridge the gap between immaturity and responsibility and to shoulder the picture’s sole romance. The latter was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The Magnificent Seven was the link between the classic westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks and the more violent offspring of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. In previous westerns, cowboys raced to rescue for love, revenge or out of a sense of duty, never for anything as shabby as money. But this was a more realistic example of the genre and a study of the type of man who ends up as a mercenary. Civilization has  driven mavericks down to the border. The past has caught up with them.  Perhaps all the future holds is the prospect of one last stand.

At the time few recognized the terrific job director John Sturges had done in marrying action with the psychological and the philosophical. The only Oscar nod was for Elmer Bernstein’s bracing score. Sturges had become something of a western specialist. Six of his last ten films had been westerns. These included modern western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) with Spencer Tracy, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) with Douglas again. But this was without doubt his masterpiece. He moved the camera with aplomb, he allowed time for characters to develop, he built up the tension, and he handled the three big action scenes with the skill of a proven battle master. Although the stand-offs against the Mexicans tend to hog the action praise, the hearse sequence deserves equal attention. For a start it is hell of a slow. The horse is going, understandably, at a funereal pace. And the hearse is headed uphill so we have no idea what lies ahead. In terms of structure and execution it is beautifully handled.

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the film. It is supposed to be available on Amazon Prime. But if not there are no shortage of DVD options. You might also like to know that I wrote a book about the making of the film which is available on Kindle and Amazon.

The Appaloosa (1966) ****

High expectation can kill a picture. Low expectation can have the opposite result. I came at The Appaloosa with the latter attitude in mind. I knew the picture had been a big flop and that critics had carped – as they had done through most of the 1960s – about the performance of Marlon Brando.

Neither was director Sidney J. Furie’s style to everyone’s taste. And it seemed an odd subject – Texan takes on Mexican warlord to recover a stolen horse.

It is surely a slow burn, but it certainly worked well beyond my anticipation. First of all, Brando’s performance came across as natural, not mannered. Secondly, this was a real character. He was not a John Wayne striding into action to protect the underdog or a woman or out of some goddam principle.

At first it did seem odd that he placed so much importance on the horse given that said warlord (John Saxon) had offered him a more than fair price for it. But in one brilliant two-minute scene, expertly directed and with virtually no close-ups – the actor caught mostly with his back to the camera or in silhouette – we discover why. Brando has been such a disappointment to his father that bringing home such an animal was proof that he had made something of himself. 

The second aspect of this intriguing picture was that the warlord placed so much importance on this particular horse when he could easily buy any horse he wanted. But he was faced with losing face. His wife Anjanette Comer had tried to escape from him on the horse and the only remedy was to persuade the watching federales that Brando had previously sold him the horse.

When Brando refuses, Saxon takes the horse by force. Brando, in retaliation, and to save his own sense of pride, tries to take it back. He is not represented as a superhuman John Wayne  or savage Clint Eastwood, but an ordinary guy who soon finds himself out of his depth. The first time he fires his rifle he misses by a mile.

Nor is he burdened with an over-enlarged empathy gland. He not only refuses to help Comer, but steadfastly refuses to take her with him, not even as far as the border, until in another of the film’s lengthy scenes she explains the reasons for her escape attempt.

Few films have exceeded it for atmosphere. This Mexico is grim, pitiless. Hostility and suspicion are endemic. Women are abused and discarded. The standout scene is Saxon and Brando arm-wrestling over scorpions, played out against a soundtrack of scraping chairs and the poisonous insects scrabbling on the table. 

This is a brooding western played out by the actor with the best eye for brooding in the business. Furie is gifted – or afflicted depending on your point of view – with an eye for the unusual camera angle. Here I think the gift not the affliction is on show.

It was just happenstance that I watched this and The Chase (1966) back-to-back and I can’t for the life of me see what on earth got the critics so rattled about Brando’s mid-decade performances. This is realistic acting at his best. Where John Wayne or Clint Eastwood present a superhuman screen persona, even if for part of a picture they are downtrodden, Brando was happy to play very human characters. In both pictures he is just an ordinary joe – forced into action by circumstance.

This sometimes turns up on TCM. Otherwise there’s a very decent DVD.

Alvarez Kelly (1966) ***

It says a lot about stardom that Oscar-winner William Holden virtually single-handedly redeems Edward Dmytryk’s Civil War western. And this was at a time when the actor’s career was in freefall, not having had a hit since The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Although his good looks personified him as a matinee idol, many of his best performances came when he was playing against type, as a shady character, such as in this instance.

Dmytryk whose career encompassed The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958) was on an opposite career trajectory after box office hits The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965). Between them, Holden and Dmytryk just about save what was a misconceived project, an original screenplay by Franklin Coen (The Train, 1965). That it was based on a true story did not make it any better an idea.

The essential narrative is that Holden has driven a couple thousand head of cattle from Mexico to deliver to Union troops. Holden plays an “Irish senor” (as defined in the title song) whose Mexican origins provides an excuse to consider the United States an enemy, positioning him as a neutral in the conflict, allowing him to justify his profiteering. Confederate colonel Richard Widmark plans to steal the herd.  Had Holden been a patriot the story would have knuckled down to him trying to thwart such plans, but since he’s a free agent with no allegiance except to himself the film has to take another route. So this involves Holden being captured by Widmark in a bid to turn the Confederate soldiers into cowboys capable of driving the stolen herd.

That would set the film down a fairly standard narrative route of training raw recruits such as Holden would follow in The Devil’s Brigade (1968). But this film evades such a simple format. All we ever learn about the intricacies of handling cattle is that you need a hat and have to be able to sing. Instead, this is a more thoughtful picture about honor versus self-interest, about the human casualties of war. Unlike most westerns it’s not about shoot-outs and fairly obvious good guys and bad guys. In the main it’s a drama about conflicting interests and often how good guys will do bad things in the name their beliefs.

The film doesn’t take sides. Do we root for the Union soldiers fighting to free slaves or the romantic version of the Confederacy? Do we root for the immoral selfish Holden because he’s had a finger shot off as a way of bringing him to heel or do our sympathies lie with the upstanding one-eyed Widmark who has given so much for his cause?  

Holden is excellent, easing into the world-weary character he would project more fully in The Wild Bunch (1969). And I like his delivery, the pauses between words as if they are occurring to him for the first time rather than rattling them off as is the way of so many stars. Janice Rule is good as the errant girlfriend who feels let down by Widmark’s honor – and who is open to seduction by Holden – and has her own ideas about what she deserves from the war.  Although it’s tempting to say we’ve seen this craggy Widmark characterization too many times before, here he adds a further emotional layer as a man who eventually faces up to the personal sacrifices he has been forced to make.     

Action fans will be amply rewarded by the ending as Holden attempts to outwit Widmark.

You might also be interested in how this movie was marketed – see the Pressbook/Marketing section article published in tandem with this.

There’s a fair chance you can catch up with this movie for free on one of the Sony Movie channels but if you don’t want to wait or want to enjoy it at its best check out the DVD.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.